George Saunders

On 10th March 2014, George Saunders (“The best short story writer in English – not “one of”, not “arguably”, but the Best” –  Time Magazine) won the inaugural Folio Prize. I spent that afternoon with him. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

George Saunders © Paul McVeigh

P: You were brought up in Chicago weren’t you?
G: Born in Texas, lived there just a year and then moved [to Chicago]. My father was in the Air Force – he met my Mum when he was stationed in Texas and then they got married and had me and went back right away.
P: You went to University and then moved again to try and find work and ended up in Sumatra…

G: The University was kind of an oil exploration specialising place and that was in the Reagan era so they had all kinds of tax deals overseas so I got out of there, not as a great student but with this specialised degree in physics and then went over to Singapore for what seemed like good money at the time and Regan had taken all the taxes off so for a single guy it seemed like you were doing pretty well – and I’d never been out of the States so it was a real eye-opener.

P: It had a huge impact – the rejection of that Ayn Rand philosophy.
G: Right, that was the real conversion experience.

P: You described your job in Sumatra as – you drilled deep down then put in dynamite and exploded it. Isn’t that a little like the writing process?
G: Well it is actually! I never thought… You’re kind of looking to see where the energy goes, that’s the same thing – you put some energy in and see how it sorts itself out.

P: Like digging, as well, getting down to something?
G: Well also the scientific thing is that you go into an experiment with an idea but not an attachment to how it might turn out so that you go into it and it’s a big… writing is the same – you start with some notion of what you think it might be or where the power’s going to be and as you’re working, part of your job is to stay a little bit aloof from it ‘how are we doing today?’ and if the story says ‘not so good’ then you have to reboot so I guess the idea would be if you’re having a good day of writing you’re just finding out what you actually have there, even if the news is bad it proves you still have taste. That was helpful. And also that school was hard – it was hard for me, I’m not really scientifically inclined so it was useful to see that was no necessary correlation between effort and result. In other words, I took a class in differential equations which was just impossible and studying so much to go in and get a D and they were like ‘I don’t care how much you studied, you got all the wrong answers!’ and that seems a little predict of writing as well – you could say ‘well I did 400 drafts!’ and if the story still isn’t doing much you just have to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘now it’s time for draft number 401’ and don’t whine about it. It was very useful in some ways.

P: You went to California after that.
G: After all of that I came back, and I’d discovered Kerouac and thought ‘that’s what I want to do’ so I had that in mind and went out there with a girl I dated in high school – she was a painter and we thought we’d go out there – I think we had this notion that we’d find all these other artists and we didn’t really!

P: Are there paintings of you around somewhere?
G: Probably, somewhere, but we don’t speak anymore! That was a nice time – I think of it partly as a class thing, because I didn’t know how to do anything, really – I didn’t know how to access artists, I didn’t know how you were supposed to go about writing – I didn’t know the proper way to do any of these things. And from reading a lot of Kerouac that he just went – which isn’t quite true because he had friends from Columbia and he had people who were working artists that he knew, but we just went out and crashed at this friends’ of ours, and kinda stayed there for three months when he only invited us for three weeks and it ended up being – just an uncomfortable class friction just to realise ‘I have no money, no way to get any’ and ‘I’m floundering and I don’t want to say I’m floundering and it’s embarrassing’. And that was a lesson that got in my marrow a little bit – that feeling of not being able to keep up the appearance of…you know.

P: That’s a big theme in your work isn’t it?
G: Yeah, it really is. As a kid I didn’t have that. But in my twenties I could really feel it. You know, I was in a car accident a few years ago and I pulled out into the traffic, my fault, and now every time I see a car coming towards me  – I flinch, and this class stuff is like that – it wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to anybody – I didn’t starve – but it was a year and a half of awkwardly failing. You know, if you go to work in a coal mine and you hurt your leg and you come out with a crutch, that’s a little bit glamorous at least but what I was doing was failing in this middle class/lower middle class way. So especially when I got married and we had kids, we weren’t any better situation money-wise really and then it was a real double-flinch because I didn’t want to get into that position again, at all costs. It was bad enough on your own but when you had kids…  So many years later when we had our kids I just went to work at a writing place that was sort of a job of my nightmares in some ways, but it was nice to know that there was a little bit of a firewall between us and… so that sort of stuff is a flinch that doesn’t go away easily.

P: Do you think that unhappiness is caused by the pursuit of something? When you want something you haven’t got, it brings unhappiness. It’s like you picked up something at university, a concept of where you wanted to be…
G: I think you’re right about that. Although I’d say it a bit differently. I think what happened was, I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in Engineering School and I didn’t know how to do it, I was reading contemporary stuff but this was the most glamorous thing I could think of. But I didn’t know how to get there. I think because I had seen these writers who had been through hardship and had written about it like Orwell, and maybe Hemingway to some extent, I thought ‘well it’s hard, that’s alright’. Also, my family had got into some financial trouble, my parents had, during that same period so there was no safety net for any of us – their restaurant burned down… So I don’t know, maybe it was a bit like someone who was rockclimbing and thought they had a rope and then they slip and fall and think ‘Oh! I don’t have a rope! What the hell?’ then you’re climbing differently after that. Again, it wasn’t a big tragedy, it was totally kind of a neurotic, middle-class problem really… It was that feeling of thinking you were on the rope and you weren’t that was shocking. In the States now, I have friends who are going through this with the financial crisis – when the floor drops out from under you and you lose your job or you don’t have savings or whatever, there really isn’t a very humane way of being helped now – it’s mostly just shut up and squirm, and you pray for something to happen – maybe turn to your parents or something, but it’s pretty cruel… I think capitalism can be pretty cruel if you fall off the grid. It’s not comfortable. I didn’t really ever fall off the grid, I mean, I ran out of money and I worked and everything… Actually, I was working in Beverley Hills when I was in California and that was a particularly theme-parky and I’m trying to charm them somehow. I thought, ‘If they like me enough, they’ll let me in the club!’ and there’s no doorway to that club! So that was interesting, and you could see that, whatever I thought I had, you know, charisma or, a little sense of humour, that they wanted you to just open the fucking door! They didn’t want a discussion about it.

P: ‘Stop having a personality and serve me’.
G: Yeah that’s right. But also then to see that there were some of those people who were living in these beautiful condos but also struck…There was a pretty well-known actor who had a beautiful apartment, but he owned no furniture and you could see he was just waiting for the next show, so he didn’t let people in there generally.

P: I re-read some of your stories and I thought of some things Kevin Barry said – about the writer being a kind of trickster figure and also, what I thought really resonated with your work was, ‘a writer operates just on the cusp of believability’. That’s a very good description of your writing – it’s recognisable, but not reality. It’s almost, sometimes, a cartoon version of America – dark, with quite startling violence but you’re laughing at the same time…
G: I’m glad to hear it. I think one of the things that happens in any kind of interview context or anytime you’re publicly presenting in any way, for me, that part is very shy and embarrassed about what it is and it seems to want to get up and away so we can talk about kindness and metaphysics – you know, that’s safer. Also, because that thing he’s talking about, that’s what I’m spending 99% of my time trying to find but then what you find is there’s not that much to say about it – you hit a certain balance and in a way you’re like a politician – I can prove this message, you know, there it is. And then you go off to talk about it and you end up answering questions about comedy or this or that – many of which presume you had an intention at the beginning that was very overt, which is not my experience. I think Trickster is right, that kind of Native American thing, or Shakespeare – someone who is smartest, who will say things that don’t make sense but kind of do and in a given situation will say the one thing that will make the energy ripple that’s my aspiration, and that’s not a rational job! Often when we talk class and that kind of stuff, that’s part of it because a working class sensibility is always undercutting that serious shit. Sometimes destructively – but that energy is there. You know, everything you said was right. In other words, my aspiration would be to rattle somebody’s cage in a way that they don’t really understand. Then walk away without saying anything. I say a lot unfortunately but that’s all part of game.

P: That reminds me of those incisive American stand-ups like Bill Hicks who were actually saying something extraordinarily difficult to hear as a human being about you and the people beside you, the people you love and the society you have made around you, but you’re also laughing.
G: That’s a very deep moment, when you look for those deep truths, those hurtful truths – for me that’s George Carlin and people like that. Well, Louis CK now. But I don’t really know. I went through periods where I became a little too sure of what I was doing and I think the thing is to keep re-booting yourself so when you go to work you can say ‘I don’t know, I don’t really know…I don’t want to be trivial, I want to do something deep but I don’t know what it is.’ And then… do you know Stuart Dybek’s work? He writes short stories and he has one beautiful story called Hot Ice that changed my life when I read it. He says ‘story is always talking to you but sometimes you just don’t listen to it.’ Sometimes you have an intention, you think ‘my story’s about this’ and your story’s saying to you ‘I’m not, I’m really not, my power is over here’ and that is the moment that over and over you have to – especially if you get some success, it seems to me that then you have to be really careful about who you are, because the danger is that you will go and be that person you already were and that’s not good. I’m working on that in a piece that I’m doing – it’s not really serious but it’s not overtly comic, to start with anyway, and I really struggled with this because it’s what I want to work on, I can feel there’s power in it, but my normal tools aren’t being called on, which is scary, you know, to say ‘Aren’t I the guy who (fill in the blank)?’ and the story’s saying ‘I don’t know, what do you think? What else you got?’ It’s made the writing job, if I’m being honest about it, which, with you I feel like I can, it’s almost like a mystical or intuitive job that is not reducable and if you do it well on Wednesday and poorly on Thursday, you don’t know why really. It’s not because of something you didn’t think about, it can be like being a musician or something, and because it’s words we intellectualise it and conceptualise it. I once heard Philip Seymour Hoffman talking about acting and it was just exactly what I thought about writing: ‘When you get up in the morning, whoever you happen to be that day, that’s the person you have to bring to the theatre, you can’t deny that person or say I’m feeling grouchy and my character’s not grouchy, you have to say ‘I feel fucking grouchy’, come on, we’re going to the theatre’ or if you get into a performance and it’s not going well, you can’t start over and say that bit was crummy, you have to fold it over into the work – those kind of things seem useful but a lot of locker room intellectualising I just kinda go “dystopian, sure, yeah!’.

P: When I was reading your work I was thinking about a sense of freedom that comes in your stories. I kept thinking ‘these characters are allowed to do whatever they want’ – they’re kind of autonomous and that scares me as a writer because I’m the exact opposite. I can sit on a story for years writing it in my head until its ready then sit down one day and write.
G: I think it might be the same for me – how you grant freedom is a quirk of the individual writer, but that you grant freedom, that’s the main thing. For me, it might be a defect of my mind, but if I think in advance of what a story means, well, I can’t do it. Almost as if we were going on a car trip – if the goal is fun, you always have to be sniffing for fun. If your goal is to be direct, or to make sure you get to your destination, but if your goal is fun, then you always have to be looking and the fun may not be where you think. It could be at this little gas station… So I think that’s the trick and that’s where the freedom comes in. If a character is a middle aged white guy, especially in a story because it’s such an efficient form, an intelligent reader will always say when you introduce a character ‘OK, what’s he for? What’s he going to do? Why is he here?’ and I think if you give a simple answer to that, and the answer stays true, then the reader gets bored. If he represents oppression…or whatever… But if a character shows up, and you’re not sure why he’s there and it turns out he’s there for fun then suddenly he feels like an actual person. This is a place where maybe one’s personal defects can turn into an artistic advantage – I don’t like being bored, I can’t stand it, and in person too, I’m a real people-pleaser, in the negative way, you know, I like people to like me and I like to keep things lively so that’s not a great personal trait but in writing…

P: It works for me, George, fire away.
G: Does it? How much? Great – can I sign this for you?… I say to my students, something that might be personally a bit of a millstone around your neck, or something you’re embarrassed about, actually if you can find a way to bring it to the table… you know, if you’re a perfectionist, great! You can be a revising perfectionist. Or David Wallace Foster, that kind of neurotic, incredibly cerebral, verbal tendency – it must have been a big day for him when he realised he could just channel that, because that was him in person you know. So for me, when I’m revising I’m thinking ‘who just closed book?’ and I’m kind of scanning and I can feel my attention start to fall off and I think ‘Ah, that’s not good, I’ve got to pull the excitement back up’. Now, if you’re trying to write a 700 page novel, that’s not a good philosophy, but if you’re writing a 7 page story, then character freedom has a lot to do with that equation too because if you feel that a character is just a mouthpiece, that’s not great. If you feel the character is a mouthpiece then suddenly he says something unexpected, then you’re back.

P: I was looking at the chronology of the stories in your new collection ‘Tenth of December’ and the earliest is ‘Sticks’ which was written nearly 20 years ago and I wondering if you look back over your stories can you see a different writer? Have you seen any change in your work?
G: No.

P: So is it an organic process for you? Your writing reflects where you’re at rather than you setting out intentionally to achieve any change?
G: The model I like is, you exist as a Saint-like being, this luminous unbelievable you is there, but there’s a bunch of habitual slop on top, but then in the artistic process you can go down to that basement now and then through work, revision or just luck – that person who wrote that in 1984, that luminous thing is the same, my ability to get to it and the direction you chose to get to it may change over time but that doesn’t change. I like to think that that’s true otherwise your work would just keep getting better which it can but you have a brilliant day 20 years ago where you accessed that person. So honestly I’m very pragmatic about this whole thing – often I find myself saying ‘do I need to know how my process works?’ Not really. Except at the gut level. Do I need to understand my development? Probably better if I don’t actually because then I start thinking ‘well, my development is telling me I should do this but my guts are always telling me…’ I’ll  tell you at any time there is only one mode that’s interesting to me – if I sat down to write right now what would that be – lets call that a mode – there’s only one at a time – and I don’t any way to proceed without honouring that, if I try something different it’s always a failure, so in a way it’s very simple – like this thing I’m working on now it could be a big mess but I can’t think of anything else to do. So there you go. So you don’t have to worry, and for me, the other gut check is to make sure I’m always working hard, sometimes, especially if I’ve been travelling I’ll come back and say ‘Oh good’ but it’s actually only about 60 per cent finished. I forgot those finishing steps, so just mechanically I say ‘lets not send anything out too soon’. Dwell with it for a longer time than you think. And with those two things in place, at least so far, it feels I’ve written the right things for me.

P: I was reading the speech you made at Syracuse, it was very moving. You talked about the importance of kindness. I feel the same way. I know how I learned that and I was wondering what taught you that? What gave you that understanding? You don’t have to answer this –
G: Was it one moment?

P: It was a period of grief. It separated me from other people. I found it was those little kindnesses that saved me. I learnt to re-engage with the world through little acts of kindness – from strangers who had no reason to do so. So kindness for me is all there is. It is the goal.

G: That’s the goal. That’s exactly what it is. Well, I couldn’t say it any better than you just did. Nothing happened really but it was around the time of death, different people that I loved passed away and I just felt that tenderness and I just felt ‘So this is how it is’ – it’s not the way we experience reality most days that is not accurate, it delusional, and then when someone dies, then it’s like that’s it… so if you attain that feeling, or it is forced on you, and then you think if that’s real then why aren’t we feeling that way all the time? Maybe it’s Darwinian, maybe you couldn’t, but in the Eastern traditions that’s the aspiration to feel that way all the time. You touched on it, the delusional feeling is that you think everything is happening to you, for you and because of you and what can break down that feeling is that suddenly you realise that that feeling of separateness is delusional. Even though we feel that’s the case, kindness – it is dress up clothes, it’s what people naturally feel about one another when that idea of primacy isn’t squashing them down and making them feel anxious. But that speech got a lot of attention, it wasn’t meant to, it got on the internet and then you’re known as Mr Kindness. But for me it is totally an aspiration. Nice is easy but kindness is a gateway virtue to me, if you say ‘I’m going to be kind’ then you find there are so many side rooms, you know, awareness, I mean, how you know what this kindness might be – staying out of something, controlling your ego. I just found it be a deep, deep well. And if you have that aspiration that you’re going to benefit people every day then you’re getting into some deep water.

P: You had a scare on a plane which left you with a heightened feeling of awareness, like you’re describing, how do you keep that feeling – remain that open? Is it connected to your Buddhism?
G: There’s an analogy in writing like when you’re revising, being aware of what that energy is giving off. You don’t have to name it but you have to see it. What stops you from seeing is your preconceptions of what it already is, so if you think page 4 is the best special moment but it isn’t then the correct approach is to say ‘well today it isn’t’ so my aspiration in writing and in life would be to have so little baggage that I’m carrying around – and also I’m an anxious person, so that gets in my way – so to try to get that to drop away so that whatever is actually happening I can see it. Certainly in writing, when you talked about earlier the freedom of the characters certainly that comes out of saying ‘there’s a moment that actually got made here’, maybe I just typed the wrong word and now that I see it I’m actually going to utilise it. So there’s some kind of connection there – but it doesn’t mean my stories will actually be sweet, or that the stories will be kind in any congenital way, they’re brutal. In the States some people thing that Buddhists are like ‘you just drove a spike through my head, that’s cool’ but that’s not what it’s about.

P: My favourite story is the title story Tenth of December and it really moved me. (Click to read.) That’s what I’d come away with. When I read it again last night I was laughing so much I was thinking ‘hold on, this is not the story I remember!’. So dark too. All I had remembered was being moved. And feeling somehow enriched from having shared that experience. I found that feeling again in a speech toward the end of the story. The rhythm changes, you leave the jokes and you conjure up a whole lifetime of love during a relationship. A character’s whole way of being, the choices they’ve made, their ideas about themselves and forgiving others and themselves, it was extraordinary. And what stood out for me – it was more tender than anything I could remember you having written before.
G: You’re right. That it was the last story to get finished and I knew, in Hollywood terms, the best was for him to look – that moment for him to say I’m just going to say what I think about my wife, just become him for a minute, it just came out, just taking what was actually true and that was a moment of real nakedness and normally I would be a little more in control and thinking ‘what do I want him to say?‘ but in that moment I just sat with him. For me, that was a bridge moment to what I’m working on now. In the past, what I might call my personal truths and the other set of things that interest me, they didn’t intersect very often. My personal truths were kind of in there but I have to spin them to make them stylistically interesting. In that paragraph they just came together – it was amazing. And I think it was because subconsciously I had been in that story for a long time and knew how he was. It was in the last days of writing the story and I’d gone through all the preparation and it just went (click) there. So that… it’s what you live for. But I was as surprised as anybody.

P: When you read it back did you feel ‘this is different – this is something else’?
G: The biggest reaction was that melding of style and substance that I – I think when I was a young writer I thought this is what it’s like all the time, you know, you just had your idea and wrote it and I had to go a long way around a had to develop an strange style and now as I’m getting older the assumption I have now is that if there’s something happened to you if there’s something bubbling that moment of it actually happening to you is actually a moment of literary style, it’s a collision of thing and language basically but because it’s a happening experience there isn’t actually a language there. Great stylists can hit that moment Hemmingway did it, I think, Joyce, Woolf does it sometimes, Henry Green. The moment when the sentence is so weird that it’s not a sentence anymore it’s an experience burst, that’s the aspiration. I’m just getting to the point now where it feels there are more occasions in my life when my actual impulse will produce good prose – prose that I could live with. And it was also partly that in that story one thing that happened to me – and it’s ridiculous that I have to be 55 when this happened – there is a moment in there when – it’s after he’s taken his coat off and he’s thinking about his family and he’s trying not have his mind go there – but he’s thinking about his son. In an early draft I could feel there was an emotional moment, and I put in a little joke about his son’s appearance, something about his hips being wide, a little jibe you know, and every time I hit that when I was re-reading it, it just felt a little bit off. So at one point I took it out. And it’s now he’s more fond of his son than he is critical and then the next time I read it I could just feel my heart open up to him a little bit. Because in that moment of crisis. I don’t think he would be thinking that critically of his son. At other times he might be, but in that moment, when he thinks he might not see him again, his thoughts are more generous and that was interesting because the part of me that first got through the door of publication or being edgy or satirical, that part of me a little defensive all the time ‘Am I being edgy enough?‘ and in that moment somebody said ‘don’t be edgy, he wouldn’t be edgy, get out of here‘ and then I put in a phrase that is not a joke it’s actually nothing, just a place holder, I could feel it on that read that it opened up an emotional doorway, just that one little change of two of three words. I did some non-fiction pieces for GQ the travel pieces and they were a good education too. They were important – just reporting. Sometimes just a simple sentence to establish a reality is really useful and it raises the stakes emotionally so those kind of things I’ve been learning through the non-fiction. Sometimes a simple direct statement that isn’t necessarily on fire can be a way of raising the stakes of the whole assignment.

P: There was a moment in Victory Lap where I felt that. It describes how the girl walked across her lawn past the pool her Dad had put in for her. I paused for a minute just to take in what ‘her Dad had put in for her’ implied. That she was doted upon, or the Dad felt he had to, or…
G: Right, and the other thing is that this is being observed through the eyes of the guy who lived across the road and idolises her…

P: Ah, and it’s also maybe his bitterness as it wouldn’t be something his parents would do for him.
G: That all happens on a sentence level as you’re going through revising I’m very careful, you know, this former Catholic, so this inner nun is always saying ‘have you done enough?‘. So if you find it’s falling a little bit flat – well, see, this it’s compression, it’s a rearrangement, and when you do that it’s almost like in chemistry where a bond gets opened up and then suddenly there’s just two syllables that are needed there like ‘for her’. So often it’s sonic and then the high standards of the sonic qualities lead to a more detailed world and what I’ve come to believe is that your subconscious is really rooting for you to get all the information you need so it’s got it all lined up on the table and it’s ‘take a look here‘ and you don’t until the sentence needs and when you do you look over and the table that you’re grabbing at has already been set in a certain way by your subconscious, it’s not just random it’s been selected. So your job as a writer is to mechanically force yourself to reach back now and then through your chronic dissatisfaction with your sentence compression.

P: You started teaching as a practical consideration, really, and I’m guessing that’s not the motivation now.
G: Right, but they’re still paying me. When I started, one of the things at that time was you got an MFA job. My teachers weren’t like this, but you heard of a lot of teachers who just phoned it in, so I thought I’d just get this job and spend as little time working on it as possible. But then over the years it became this wonderful, rich… we did this thing at Syracuse where we read 600 pieces for 6 places so we just made our calls to them and you know it’s kind of a deep bond. They give you 3 years of their lives and you’re giving them 3 years of your life, so it’s great. I started teaching in 1996/7 and now they’re grown-ups – they’re older than me some of them – not really – and in the case of those we’ve helped publish – and even those we haven’t – there’s something very deep about that mutual trust – I love it. And the times that I don’t teach I don’t write as well. I mean, you can’t write 12 hours day, maybe 3 or 4 and any tendency towards complacency – you go in there a you meet those classes and they’re so enthusiastic. You know to them it’s new. So I love it.

P: I love teaching – I’m teaching children story at the minute and it’s like cooking popcorn – you tell them an idea and watch it pop, pop, around the room. And I think there’s something in leaving that trail of breadcrumbs, making things that little bit easier for those that come behind.
G: When you said earlier about that separation vanishing between you and others, when you think ‘all I want to do is have a book out- when I do all my neurosis will disappear, then I’ll be so happy’ and really when I look back that was part of my whole thing was just ambition. Ambition. But then when you’ve done it for a while you’re kind of like making sandcastles. Ok, so you write a book and maybe it does well but sometimes it just goes away, maybe this year or ten years but with teaching it is like popcorn – once that corn’s popped, it’s popped. And you don’t really get the credit for it but still in your heart you know you did just pop a bunch of corn. I suppose in type it’s really not that different – you write a book and it’s goes out and maybe it pops corn of a different kind but I found personally that to say I spent the last 20 years writing these number of books – yeah, they come and go, some are already fading away but the people that you influence they go away and influence people and that seems more reliable. It’s not so much about you getting yours. The teachers that I’ve had – I’m sure a lot of them don’t know what they did for me but it’s still done. I’m so glad I didn’t quit when I was younger, not that I could have but it gets deeper every year.

P: Congratulations on winning The Story Prize by the way.
G: Thank you.

P: You must be over the moon.
G: Well, I guess when you do these things you just assume you’re going loose – that’s the safe thing so it’s a nice surprise.

P: And tonight. Do you get nervous about this kind of thing?
G: Only socially. If you win you might be an idiot if you lose you might be an idiot. As long as you can just be nice – though this one I’m not expecting anything but we’re enjoying our stay. This book hit really big in the States and it’s made a ripple effect of so much busyness so we’re going to stop in May. I’ve got a pretty good start on this book. It’s easy to live on the fumes of the last one. In the past, it was never an issue but now, suddenly, I could book the next year without writing a word.

***

If you are a writer you have to read George Saunders – simple. You can buy Tenth of December here.

With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for arranging this interview.

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